Confinement with Kierkegaard in Brussels
Anxiety was not the first word that came to my mind when the quarantine was imposed on all of us. The right word was rather boredom, especially in Brussels. I mean this in a positive way. Consider Newton. Confined to his home in Woolsthorpe because of the Great Plague that ravaged London in 1666, Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravitation. In the absence of external distractions that would have engulfed his attention, he chose to delve into the depths of his mind. Creativity ensues from boredom, although it is doubtful whether this is the case for all of us. Some may never engage in the frustration and effort to fill the emptiness that comes with boredom. They’d bath in the ocean of indifference, oblivious both of the others and themselves.
Anxiety began to raise its restless head when the corona-numbers in Belgium came pouring in. A week or so after Italy’s daily announcement of the hundreds of deaths caused by COVID-19, Belgium became the country with the highest coronavirus death rate in the world. And ever since, it has maintained its pole position. In addition, Belgium is amongst the first ten countries in the world in terms of coronavirus cases per 100.000 inhabitants, alongside Luxembourg, Spain, Qatar, Iceland, Vatican City, Gibraltar, etc. Not a rosy picture, even though the counting is based on the official total number of tests being performed. Because these numbers can be misleading (no tests, no cases), you go back to the death rate, which, for a country like Belgium (11.4 million inhabitants), is very high (8016 deaths, as of May 5). According to the government crisis centre, Belgium’s official death toll includes the suspected cases as well, and this, again, might not offer a reliable comparison to other countries. The uncertainty engulfing each number causes what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard calls dizziness, the lightheadedness we feel when myriad possibilities are spinning around us. We are free to choose what to believe, and the deeper we look into the abyss of our imagination, the woozier we get.
The Aesthetic or the Ethical life?
Billions of people have been placed under quarantine because of our collective fight against “an invisible enemy”, how Emmanuel Macron called the virus. Each one of us is responsible for the other, who becomes an extension of our selves. Nevertheless, fears have emerged that government restrictions infringe upon our civil liberties. That in time, freedom, this supreme value, will be a haggard memory we hold onto nostalgically.
What is the point of freedom if not to enable us to become a better version of ourselves?, Kierkegaard would have asked.
Either/Or is the book he published in 1843. The title is inspired by Aristotle’s principle of contradiction, which states that when we are faced with two contradictory statements, one has to be false and the other true. In the same vein, Kierkegaard views the human existence from two different standpoints: the aesthetic exploration of life and the ethical realm. These are not solely ways of living one’s life, but stages of learning as well.
Approaching life aesthetically means living it to the fullest, in the most hedonistic way possible. Do you want to use public transport without a mask? Go for it! In case you are tested positive for the virus, is the government allowed to track your contacts via the coronavirus app to stop the virus from spreading? Belgium intends to do so starting May 4. Well, delicate question, it is an invasion of privacy. To the aesthetic being, freedom means authenticity, that is, no deviation from the real self and subjective pleasures. Kierkegaard compares this mode of life to a child’s development stage, when the child has no sense of responsibility because to him only the present matters, and there is no past and future. The aesthetic being is static, true to himself, but confined within his self.
On the contrary, the ethical life brings the presence of the others to the foreground. One’s freedom takes on a new meaning, being married with critical self-reflection. By being held accountable, the self surpasses itself. It is not static anymore. Kierkegaard said that true freedom arises when you face both the past and the future, when you confront the human condition. That is, when you “discover a second face hidden behind the one you see” in yourself.
We do not lose our freedom when we comply to the restrictions meant to end this pandemic. If anything, we gain a fuller version of it. Because we become more human.
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